Christopher Hitchens And “The Supreme Virtue”


Christopher Hitchens’ death is a great loss to everyone who admires skillful writing, clear thinking, and unflinching courage. Here’s an example of Hitchens in debate:

…it was Hitchens in debates and columns after 9/11, as much as or more than anyone else, who provided the intellectual and moral foundation for America’s war against Islamist-inspired terror.

“If you want to avoid upsetting these people you have to let Indonesia commit genocide in East Timor, otherwise they’ll be upset with you. You’ll have made an enemy,” he bellowed at a questioner who dared blame the West for instigating the terror threat against it.

“If you tell them they can’t throw acid in the faces of unveiled women in Karachi, they will be annoyed with you,” Hitchens continued. “If you say we insist — we think cartoonists in Copenhagen can print satire on the Prophet Muhammad — you’ve just made an enemy. You’ve brought it on. You’re encouraging it to happen.”

Hitchens would have none of it.

“So unless you are willing to commit suicide for yourself and for this culture, get used to the compromises you will have to make and the eventual capitulation that will come to you,” he went on. “But bloody well don’t do that in my name because I’m not doing it. You surrender in your own name. Leave me out of it.”

The best thing I have read so far is by his brother Peter with whom “Hitch” had differences on politics and religion:

…Here’s a thing I will say now without hesitation, unqualified and important. The one word that comes to mind when I think of my brother is ‘courage’. By this I don’t mean the lack of fear which some people have, which enables them to do very dangerous or frightening things because they have no idea what it is to be afraid. I mean a courage which overcomes real fear, while actually experiencing it.

I don’t have much of this myself, so I recognise it (and envy it) in others. I have a memory which I cannot place precisely in time, of the two of us scrambling on a high rooftop, the sort of crazy escapade that boys of our generation still went on, where we should not have been. A moment came when, unable to climb back over the steep slates, the only way down was to jump over a high gap on to a narrow ledge. I couldn’t do it. He used his own courage (the real thing can always communicate itself to others) to show me, and persuade me, that I could. I’d add here that he was for a while an enthusiastic rock climber, something I could never do, and something which people who have come to know him recently would not be likely to guess.

He would always rather fight than give way, not for its own sake but because it came naturally to him. Like me, he was small for his age during his entire childhood and I have another memory of him, white-faced, slight and thin as we all were in those more austere times, furious, standing up to some bully or other in the playground of a school we attended at the same time.

This explains plenty. I offer it because the word ‘courage’ is often misused today . People sometimes tell me that I have been ‘courageous’ to say something moderately controversial in a public place. Not a bit of it. This is not courage. Courage is deliberately taking a known risk, sometimes physical, sometimes to your livelihood, because you think it is too important not to. My brother possessed this virtue to the very end, and if I often disagreed with the purposes for which he used it, I never doubted the quality or ceased to admire it. I’ve mentioned here before C.S.Lewis’s statement that courage is the supreme virtue, making all the others possible. It should be praised and celebrated, and is the thing I‘d most wish to remember.

We got on surprisingly well in the past few months, better than for about 50 years as it happens. At such times one tends to remember childhood more clearly than at others, though I have always had a remarkably clear memory of much of mine. I am still baffled by how far we both came, in our different ways, from the small, quiet, shabby world of chilly, sombre rented houses and austere boarding schools, of battered and declining naval seaports, not specially cultured, not book-lined or literary or showy but plain, dutiful and unassuming. How unlikely it would have seemed in those irrecoverable suburban afternoons that we would take the courses we did take.

Two pieces of verse come to mind, one from Hilaire Belloc’s ’Dedicatory Ode’

‘From quiet homes and first beginnings, out to the undiscovered ends, there’s nothing worth the wear of winning but laughter and the love of friends’

I have always found this passage unexpectedly moving because of something that lies beneath the words, good and largely true though they are. When I hear it, I see in my mind’s eye a narrow, half-lit entrance hall with a slowly-ticking clock in it, and a half-open door beyond which somebody is waiting for news of a child who long ago left home.

And T.S.Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’ (one of the Four Quartets)

‘We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time’

These words I love because I have found them to be increasingly and powerfully true. In my beginning, as Eliot wrote elsewhere in the Quartets, is my end. Alpha et Omega.

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